Pacific Pivot: U.S.- Japan Relations and Obama’s Visit to Japan

For The Diplomat, Yo-Jung Chen writes: U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan, which begins today, has been the subject of both excitement and anxiety.

thediplomatFor the optimists, the first state visit to Japan by a U.S. president since Bill Clinton in 1996, will serve to reaffirm the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance as well as of Japan’s cherished privilege of being America’s best friend in Asia, especially in the context of an increasingly volatile geopolitical situation in this region.

For the less optimistic observers, the mere fact that the strength of the alliance needs to be reaffirmed is in itself a worrying indication, given the unmistakable signs of glitches and cracks that have begun to appear. The unprecedented difficulty Japan had getting Obama to agree to a stopover in Tokyo during this tour of Asia is cited as a telltale sign of the unease that is beginning to permeate bilateral ties.

Shifting Alliances in Asia

Obama comes to Asia with a vital mission of reassuring both allies and adversaries of Uncle Sam’s commitment to maintaining order in this part of the world. That will not be easy, since recent crises in Libya, Syria and Ukraine have only demonstrated how weary America has become of flexing its muscles – even when challenged. And in Asia especially, U.S. resolve is constantly being tested and challenged by China and North Korea.

Be it in Northeast or Southeast Asia, Obama will be met with growing doubt over America’s commitment. This has led several countries to start reshuffling the cards of existing alliances. America itself, while asking its allies to beef up their defense against China, is at the same time seeking Beijing’s cooperation in managing major international issues. South Korea, a traditional U.S. ally, is drawing closer to China in a move that, viewed from Washington, could threaten the solidarity of the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance, especially when this Sino-South Korean rapprochement is being partly fuelled by their shared anger at revisionist Japan. North Korea, too, has thrown out its traditional alliance with China and has shown signs of warming to Japan in what may jeopardize the outcome of the Chinese-led Six Party Talks over the North Korean nuclear issue. Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis has raised the possibility of a strategic rapprochement between Russia and China in the developing context of a new Cold War. Taking an ambiguous stand on the Ukraine crisis, China will thus be able to play the “Russian card” to bargain for more U.S. concessions in the management of Asian affairs, for example in its simmering territorial feud with Japan.

In the case of Japan, the uncertainty of U.S. resolve to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands against an eventual Chinese assault has been amplified in the past year by the uncomfortable feeling of growing U.S. coldness towards the rightwing nationalism of Shinzo Abe’s leadership. This feeling of insecurity has motivated Abe’s worldwide diplomatic drive in search of additional allies. Among others, this drive has led the Japanese leader to develop a particularly warm relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the thinly veiled hope of securing Russian support in Japan’s feud with China.

In this changing geopolitical landscape in Asia, what can Obama and Abe expect from their talks in Tokyo?

Patching up the Alliance

Abe’s most pressing concern is a reconfirmation of the solidity of the U.S.-Japan alliance. This is all the more important because this solidity has faced some serious tests following growing U.S. nervousness with the regional tensions enflamed by Abe’s display of overly nationalistic ideology. Irritation within the liberal Obama administration against the rightwing Japanese leader has been building ever since Abe returned to power in December 2012. The Japanese leader’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 was yet another test of U.S. patience. With the developing cracks in the bilateral relationship, Abe actually risks going down in history as the postwar Japanese leader with the worst ties with America. This can be politically fatal in a country where personal ties with the U.S. president are seen as a critical asset for any leader.

Besides the question of personal chemistry between Obama and Abe, the “discordance” surfacing within the alliance risks sending the wrong message to the Chinese, who are watching for any sign of weakness in U.S.-Japan relations which might help them contest Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Tokyo’s priority will therefore be a joint declaration by the two leaders in reaffirming the healthy state of the alliance. Obama will no doubt grant this assurance, although it will be carefully worded to avoid the U.S. being automatically dragged into an open conflict between Japan and China over the disputed territory. In exchange, the Japanese leadership will be invited to keep quiet on sensitive matters (such as comfort women, the Tokyo Tribunal, and the Rape of Nanjing) that unnecessarily flame emotions in this volatile part of the world….(read more)

The Diplomat

The writer is a retired French diplomat. Born in Taiwan and educated in Vietnam and Japan, he has served in the French Foreign Ministry and in French diplomatic missions in Japan, the U.S.A, Singapore and China.

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